This essay was written by WRRC Graduate Outreach Assistant Taylor Simmons.
The 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP28) is an international conference hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from November 30 – December 12, 2023. The COP comprises 198 parties (197 countries and the European Union), representing the largest annual United Nations conference with an average of 25,000 attendees, though over 70,000 registered this year. Established in 1995 and hosted in different countries annually (aside from 2020), the conference is dedicated to developing global approaches to mitigate climate change and assessing resilience along with reviewing the efficacy of current climate change strategies. Strategies reviewed at this year’s COP in Dubai included the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, dedicated to stabilizing greenhouse gasses, and the 2015 Paris Agreement, a plan to maintain global temperature increase lower than 1.5 degrees Celsius, a tipping point in the Earth’s climate equilibrium. I attended and gave a research presentation on sanitation and safe drinking water as part of a UArizona-organized delegation. Read on for more information about the proceedings.
The COP28 conference highlighted the importance of 1) climate justice, 2) the power of language, and 3) the interconnection between health and climate change. Acknowledging that those who contribute the least to greenhouse emissions are the most vulnerable, a Loss and Damage Fund was established and signed by all countries at COP27. The agreement requires that developed countries pay climate reparations to global south countries to uphold equitable distribution of wealth. This investment would help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts, including flooding, heat waves, loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, and negative health outcomes. On the first day of COP28, approximately $429 million was pledged by countries like the UAE, Germany, the UK, the US, and Japan, though experts estimate that $400 billion is required annually for adequate climate justice. During COP28, the agreement was reviewed, along with the Paris Climate Agreement and Kyoto Agreement.
The topic of language was a theme throughout party negotiations as well as in circles of activism. COP28 hosted researchers, activists, doctors, health workers, climatologists, oceanographers, engineers, indigenous communities, water providers, public authorities, and energy leaders. Outside of country party circles, the audience was encouraged to be skeptical of party pledges and to heed language. The audience was prompted to endorse phrases like “phase out,” not “phase down,” of fossil fuels, to ask questions such as “How much money have you delivered in the last 10 years?” and to inquire if they are using carbon capture investments to justify oil extraction and use. Language was closely studied in the party negotiating rooms as well. Hour-long sessions of the Paris Climate Agreement meetings were dedicated to revising a single paragraph of the draft text. This attentive nature infiltrated every facet of the conference.
For the first time in history, health found its way onto the COP28 agenda. The opening health plenary hosted several ministers of health, doctors, and community health workers, as well as the World Health Organization’s Director General, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the World Bank’s Senior Managing Director, Axel Van Trotsenburg, Bill Gates, and the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry. The speakers shared how climate change impacts, such as biodiversity loss, air pollution, drought, heat waves, and changes in precipitation, have led to negative physical, social, and mental health outcomes, notably for global south communities. They described how climate change has led to severe food, water, and energy insecurity, increasing acute (vector-borne and waterborne) illnesses as well as chronic illnesses, such as cancer. John Kerry said that “we should not measure progress on the climate crises just by degrees averted but by lives saved,” echoing the overall theme of the plenary: when lives are prioritized, just, climate-resilient transitions will follow.
In alignment with the inaugural Health Day theme, Dr. Aminata Kilungo, an Associate Professor of Practice in the Community, Environment, and Policy Department at UArizona, secured and recruited speakers for a COP28 side event, titled Climate Change and Health, the Role of Academic Institutions, and Future Research Directions. I was fortunate to attend this side event and present research on a collaborative project with the UArizona and Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS). Based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a community known for frequent and severe cholera outbreaks, the research project assessed how social determinants of health shape climate change resilience and health outcomes in underserved, climate-vulnerable communities. Though organizations such as the CDC, WHO, and UNICEF recognize access to sanitation and drinking water as a human right, one in every four people lack access to safe drinking water and nearly half of the world’s population does not have access to proper sanitation. Water, sanitation, hygiene (WaSH)-related diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and others continue to be the leading cause of child mortality, notably in sub-Saharan African communities where 40% of the population does not have access to clean, safe water. In addition to the identified risk factors associated with waterborne diseases, such as inadequate WaSH infrastructure and practices, high population density, and poverty, climate change is resulting in hotter temperatures, more severe natural disasters, resource displacement, and desertification, further threatening the quality and safety of water systems. Limited studies have shown the association between climate change and accurate cholera occurrences in developing countries. A recording of my presentation is available to view online.
COP28 Relevance to Arizona
The world is in a water crisis, considering water availability, climate change, groundwater dependence, and pollution. Water use has increased 6-fold since 1990. To bring this subject closer to home, the American Southwest has been experiencing a megadrought for the last two decades. Climate change has resulted in less snowpack, limited evapotranspiration, more extreme natural disasters, exacerbated urban heat island effect, and irregular weather patterns, and as the climate changes, so too does water and health change. Though the Colorado River allocations had once sustained nearly 6 million acres of farmland, water levels in Lake Mead were at a record-breaking low last year, triggering a Tier 2a shortage for the lower basin states. These conditions will further increase Arizona’s dependence on groundwater, which comes with its own challenges. Groundwater, some of which is known as “fossil water,” accumulated over tens of thousands of years ago, and groundwater over-pumping not only depletes our water “savings account,” but also contributes to land subsidence, infrastructure damage, and ecosystem destruction. Water quantity directly relates to water quality. Over 350,000 chemical mixtures have been created in the last 70 years, most of which are unregulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, making every clean drop count. At COP28, I was fortunate to learn more about how climate change and subsequent limited water availability have impacted other regions around the world, as well as global strategies to mitigate climate change and improve our community’s resilience.